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Idaho judge seals case in teacher sex-abuse scandal

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  1. Court Access
An Idaho district court granted a county prosecutor’s request to seal court documents and proceedings from the public last month…

An Idaho district court granted a county prosecutor’s request to seal court documents and proceedings from the public last month in a case involving a junior high school teacher accused of sexually abusing an underage student online, according to The Times-News of Twin Falls, Idaho.

District Judge Michael Crabtree issued the order to seal court documents and bar the public from the courtroom in the prosecution of Michael S. Brinkerhoff, 42, a Burley Junior High School teacher accused of felony sexual abuse of a child. Brinkerhoff allegedly posed as his 15-year-old nephew online in order to engage in sexually explicit conversations with a young female student at his school, The Times-News reported.

When Cassia County Prosecutor Al Barrus learned in early September that the victim’s fellow classmates and other Burley residents were going to attend the court proceedings, he filed a motion to seal the case in order to protect the victim, due to the “extremely embarrassing” circumstances surrounding the case, he said.

“We were just concerned that she wouldn’t be able to handle it — facing the public . . . because [Brinkerhoff allegedly] got her to do some things that were very embarrassing,” Barrus said.

Barrus added that in his 30-year experience as a county prosecutor, he has never before asked a judge to seal an entire case from the public docket. However, he felt that the nature of this case necessitated the seal order.

“It isn’t like we do it all the time. It’s just one we felt very strongly about,” he said.

Judge Crabtree’s seal order currently applies only to the pre-trial hearing. However, the Cassia County District Court will likely decide whether to seal the entire criminal trial from the public at Brinkerhoff's arraignment, which is scheduled to be held on Oct. 12, Barrus said.

While most court documents and criminal proceedings are traditionally open to reporters and the public, such access is not always allowed. Judges in criminal trials will sometimes decide to close proceedings in sexual assault cases out of a concern for the emotional trauma that victims often experience when testifying in public, according to the Reporters Committee's First Amendment Handbook.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has set precedent that in order to seal court documents and proceedings, a judge must ensure that such secrecy does not impinge upon the First Amendment rights of the public. The "state must show that closure is necessitated by a compelling governmental interest,” Justice William Brennan wrote for the Supreme Court in a 1982 case deciding a challenge brought by the Globe Newspaper Co. to the closure of criminal proceedings involving sexual abuse. “Public access to criminal trials permits the public to participate in and serve as a check upon the judicial process — an essential component in our structure of self-government,” he wrote.

The courts usually apply a balancing test to determine whether the need for public disclosure outweighs the stated need for confidentiality. Supreme Court precedent also requires lower courts to hold a hearing in which members of the public and the media can question the reasoning behind a seal order.

Because the Supreme Court has set the bar so high for court closure, Judge Crabtree’s decision to seal the entire trial appears to be “extremely unusual,” said Bruce Johnson, a media lawyer who has previously dealt with secret court issues.

“The basic rule is that you must have a compelling interest in order to justify any closure and, obviously, sealing everything is extremely disfavored,” he said.

While courts will often seal part of a case, such as the testimony of an underage victim of sexual abuse, completely removing the case from the public docket is highly uncommon, Johnson said.

“To seal everything is extraordinary, almost unprecedented,” he said.